Is non-violence a rhetoric to disempower the already marginalized or does it ever work? We analyze.

The state calls its own violence law, but that of the individual, crime – Max Stirner

This summer, on 2 July 2022, Libya witnessed a large-scale civil disobedience movement as hundreds of protestors took to the streets, attacking government offices and storming the House of Representatives, in response to the third round of UN-mediated negotiation between rival Libyan factions on impending elections, which failed on technical grounds. As the news made headlines, demonstrators were met with strong condemnation on the misuse of the right to “peacefully protest” by the UN special adviser on Libya Stephanie Williams, who instructed practicing restraint to a population suffering from over 11 years of severe economic crisis and a political deadlock left in the aftermath of the 2011 NATO led and UN sanctioned military intervention in the country.

The reaction to the recent protests in Libya by the UN is one of the many examples of how the right to peaceful protest for social or political change, or the theory of non-violence, is often applied as a political strategy to weaken or delegitimize people’s movements challenging an established state of affairs or status quo, an effect which is further strengthened by the popularity of a sincere but highly simplistic and flawed vision of non-violence among many actors on the global stage, including the UN.

There are numerous ways that non-violence is promoted on the global political forefront, most prominently by hegemonic powers or the ruling elite. Every year the United Nations celebrates the International Day of Non-Violence on 2nd of October, which is the birthday of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, a leader of the Indian nationalist movement against British imperialism in the 20th century. But Gandhi did not alone liberate South Asia, and there were many different political stakeholders including some like Bhagat Singh, who believed in political violence against the oppressing colonizing British forces, but such peronalities are rarely talked about, even though they played a signficant role in leading to the British exit from South Asia.

The description by the UN et al implies non-violence as an approach that isn’t reticent but rejects active violence, thereby attempting to appeal to its effectiveness as a political strategy, as well as asserting a moral imperative of desisting from violence. Thereafter, accountability is shifted to the Oppressed, magnifying instead of their response to injustice. However, on the dangers of moral assessment of protestors, as opposed to the authority or perpetrating State they’re demonstrating against, journalist Rebecca Pierce writes, “The emphasis on the conduct of protesters erases the violent escalation of law enforcement, who in recent days have blinded people with rubber bullets, sprayed tear gas and pepper spray indiscriminately, incited physical confrontation, driven vehicles into crowds, and killed a man while clearing a protest in Louisville, Kentucky,” in the context of the recent Black Lives Matter movement in the United States.

Elsewhere in the world, especially in authoritarian regimes like in China, Russia, and most recently in Iran, peaceful and non-violent movements have witnessed the exertion of more despotic methods of crackdown, resulting in mass killings, incarceration, forced conscription, and a nearly permanent damage to civil society through censorship and the imminent threat of direct violence.

This shows how several States around the world continue to escalate their use of violence against civilians while the civil society is told to opt for non-violence – which appears to have become a rhetoric and political device pushed by the mainstream for the disempowerment of civil society mobilizations, even when political violence becomes inevitable as a reaction.

This can also be seen on historical records, as in the decades leading up to the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 that witnessed numerous incidents of military repression of unarmed civilians demanding political representation and socio-economic justice; or the 1952 Defiance Campaign by the African National Congress (ANC) that was met with open-firing and mass imprisonment of non-violent protestors in apartheid South Africa.

Ultimately, more often than not, non-violence falls into the larger systemic and strategic framework for the reinforcement of power imbalance and the capacity for violence of totalitarian institutions or the State.

Non-violence as a political concept could have been useful in situations where authorities act upon a conscience, where the law treats people as citizens and not subjects, and the infliction of violence or the evidence of damage to human society alerts a sense of responsibility. However, law and order has now become code for an enforced state of affairs, wherein the expectation of non-violence is imposed on the more vulnerable and marginalized populations.

Proponents of non-violence, thereby, harbor a false assumption of, or disregard the inherently violent nature of the State. And as anarchist writer Peter Gelderloos writes, “our society honors and commemorates both pro-state violence and respectable, dissident pacifism.”

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